Yes, Voting by Mail Remains Safe, Fair, and Democratic in 2020

Voting by mail does not create opportunities for fraud, nor in the past has it advantaged one party or the other. If given sufficient time, there is every reason to believe that all votes will be counted, irrespective of the way they were cast.

An employee at the Utah County Election office puts mail in ballots into a container to register the vote in the midterm elections on November 6, 2018 in Provo, Utah. Photo: Getty Images

By Michael McFaul and Bronte Kass

During the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread concerns about the health risks of in-person voting for the 2020 U.S. presidential election have not subsided. Increased demand for absentee voting has generated dozens of states to propose changes to their existing election laws, statutes, and systems. New policies range from temporarily eliminating excuse requirements to automatically sending ballots or request forms to registered voters. In parallel, over 100 state and federal lawsuits have been filed to challenge various aspects of election administration, particularly rules and procedures related to voting by mail.

Consequently, the landscape has changed rapidly. In addition to the five states which previously adopted all-mail elections, in which ballots were automatically mailed to registered voters, approximately 83% of Americans are now eligible to vote by mail in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. State-by-state variations remain, including whether an excuse is required.

Source: NBC

The increased demand for absentee voting is predicted to shatter records and place significant pressure on election administrators, as states will be printing more envelopes and ballots, procuring additional infrastructure, training more individuals to process the returned ballots, and launching voting information campaigns. Well-prepared states are accustomed to counting a high number of mail ballots, but those with historically low rates of absentee voting will face challenges for scaling up capacity and maintaining the security of these systems.

Source: The New York Times

In terms of voter participation and equity for November, the primary vulnerabilities of any vote-by-mail system appear to be dependent on the likelihood of voter error, lost ballots, or processing errors that do not occur while voting in person. Turnout tends to increase when vote-by-mail is expanded, since it provides a more convenient and accessible alternative for demographic groups who struggle to vote at traditional in-person polling places or voting centers (e.g., differently abled, younger, or elderly populations).

A September survey conducted by the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project highlighted several concerns of Americans in seven battleground states. It also found evidence that respondents expressed higher levels of confidence that their votes in 2020 would be counted as cast, compared to in 2016.

Source: The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project

Despite false narratives and misinformation, research finds that voting by mail is safe from both fraud and disease transmission, and its expansion does not benefit one party more than another. A study led by University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington, and Stanford University researchers determined that the implementation of all-mail voting in the state of Colorado had an overall turnout effect of approximately 9.4 percentage points, increasing aggregate turnout among lower-propensity voting groups and reducing disparities. Supporting the conventional wisdom of election administration experts, the Stanford University Democracy & Polarization Lab found that despite modestly improving overall average turnout, mail-in voting does not appear to affect either party’s share of turnout, nor increase either party’s vote share.

But many U.S. voters still wonder whether they have sufficient time to cast their ballots by mail. In the 2018 midterm elections, over one-quarter of all rejected mail ballots were not counted because they were late. Over half a million ballots were rejected in the 2020 presidential primaries.

Nevertheless, voters should have plenty of time to cast a ballot by mail for the general election, if they request early. Early requests also help election administrators to more quickly process received ballots.

Source: The New York Times

In fact, over 2.1 million Americans across 18 states have already voted in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Impressively, over one-quarter of requested ballots in North Carolina (over 300,000 ballots) had been returned by early October. Increased attention is also being devoted to voter education, particularly for first time absentee voters on how to request a ballot before the state deadline, correctly fill out the ballot, and ensure ballots will not be rejected.

Here’s the bottom line: Voting by mail is safe and fair. Voting by mail does not create opportunities for fraud, nor in the past has it advantaged one party or the other. The American people rightly have faith that their mail-in votes will be counted. The decentralized U.S. system of voting is not governed by a shared, uniform set of rules. But that complexity does not mean that the system does not work. If given sufficient time, there is every reason to believe that all votes will be counted, irrespective of the way they were cast.

For more information on the implementation and research of voting by mail in the United States, see the Healthy Elections’ Project Vote-by-Mail Resource Guide, a Resource Guide for Educating Voters on How to Vote by Mail, as well as additional research and tools from the Healthy Elections Project. To see real-time research, monitoring and analysis about the Stanford Cyber Policy Center’s programs and partnerships, visit FSI’s Free, Fair and Healthy Elections in 2020.

Visit Vote.org to check your registration status, register to vote, or request an absentee ballot for the general election. To plan your vote in November 2020, visit Plan Your Vote or How to Vote in the 2020 General Election. To specifically confirm the rules in your state and request an absentee ballot, see Absentee Ballot Rules.

*Note: This is the third post in Michael McFaul and Bronte Kass’s blog series “Preserving American Democracy.” Read the first post, The Imperative of a Free and Fair Presidential Election in November, and the second post, Lessons from Primary Elections in August for Election Day in November.

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FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.